Editorial: Gun lessons from an ISIS recruit and John Hinckley Jr.

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Pulse employees embrace at a memorial in front of the club in Orlando, Fla., on July 14, 2016. A gunman reported inspired by Islamic radicalism killed 49 and wounded others June 12 during a Latin night at the gay venue.(Loren Elliott/The Tampa Bay Times via AP)

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Arming terrorists for attacks on the United States is a piece of cake. So says a former recruit of the world’s most infamous terrorist group, ISIS.

From a German prison, Harry Sarfo recently explained that while ISIS sends trained recruits from Syrian camps to other countries to help execute terrorist attacks, it usually employs a different approach in the United States.

It’s “much easier” to reach potential terrorist recruits in America “over the social network,’’ Sarfo told the New York Times. And once they take the internet bait, he said, arming them is simple.

“Americans, they’re dumb because they have open gun policies,’’ Sarfo said.

“It’s easy to get radical Muslims to buy guns” in America, said Sarfo, explaining what he was told while at a Syrian camp run by the Islamic State’s secret service. “They say we can radicalize them easily, and if they don’t have no criminal record they can buy the guns themselves. We don’t need to have no contact man who has to provide guns for them.”


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So ISIS has figured out how to exploit what it considers America’s “dumb” gun laws. The homegrown Islamic extremists who killed 14 people in San Bernardino last year using two semiautomatic assault rifles and two semiautomatic pistols reflected, in many ways, the evolution Sarfo outlined.

But actually, U.S. gun laws are even more lax than Sarfo described.

Even now across America, people who legally are not allowed to buy guns can get them all the same because background checks are haphazard and ineffective. Those with a criminal record or mental illness often can buy a gun at a private gun show or even a neighbor’s garage sale or from a gun trafficker. And, add to that, people can buy assault weapons in this country, unlike in most other Western nations.

Sarfo’s chilling interview was published in the New York Times on Thursday, two years to the day that former White House press secretary Jim Brady died from gunshot wounds inflicted by John Hinckley Jr., who is due for release as early as Friday.

Hinckley has been confined to a government psychiatric hospital since being found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1981 shooting of Brady, President Ronald Reagan and two others.

Gun rights activists, including GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump, often contend that the good guys need to be armed to protect the rest of us from the bad guys with guns. That didn’t work too well for Brady or Reagan, surrounded by a security detail, on the day Hinckley showed up.

Any day now, the man who said he shot Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster will be allowed to live full-time with his mother in a gated golf course development in Williamsburg, Va. His release carries dozens of conditions, including that he cannot carry a weapon.

Even so, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence warned Thursday that, despite Hinckley’s record of violence and mental illness, theoretically he could buy a gun at a Virginia gun show because no private gun show in Virginia and 31 other states is required by law to run a background check on him.

“He will be able to buy another gun without a background check,’’ said Brady Campaign president Dan Gross. “We can do better than that.”

John Hinckley Jr. and Harry Sarfo are sobering reminders this week that America’s gun laws need to be tightened. Not to prevent law-abiding, responsible Americans who just want to protect their homes or to hunt from having guns. That’s the false narrative of the NRA.

But to prevent those with criminal records or mental histories from buying guns. To stop widespread access to semi-automatic assault weapons. To keep guns out of the hands of would-be terrorists.

It’s virtually impossible to legislate against every gun scenario. But several bills in Congress now and over the years represent an improvement on current laws.

One would expand universal background checks to include firearms sold at gun shows. Another would block gun sales to anyone on a terrorist watchlist. Yet another would restore a ban on assault weapons.

All have sat frustratingly stagnant. We hope the lessons that John Hinckley Jr. and Harry Sarfo conjure up this week will finally spring Congress into action on them.

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